Thursday, August 14, 2008

Question about Breaking Dawn

Beware, MAJOR SPOILER inside.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Squee Factor

I figured I'd jump in and start up our discussion of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight-- and where else, really, could one start such a conversation than with the book's obvious appeal: the Squee factor.

For the uninitiated, i.e. those of you who don't frequent internet message boards, "squee" is web-shorthand for the deafening cries of pure female adoration you'll hear any time any kind of teen idol (real or fictional) is seen or discussed by his rabid fans. Think of the noise the audience made at the Beatles' famous Ed Sullivan Show appearance as the ultimate personification of SQUEE. More generally, the word can be used to describe any kind of interaction/character/relationship/situation in fiction that would cause its readers to go "squee." The on again/off again, possibly forbidden romance, and all its concomitant sexual tension (see Wuthering Heights, Pam and Jim's relationship on The Office): SQUEE! The tall, dark, handsome, mysterious, slightly arrogant, seemingly distant-but-actually-secretly-in-love-with-the-heroine romantic hero (see: Mr. Darcy, Edward Rochester, Bruce Wayne, ... like every Harlequin romance novel ever)? SQUEE! The concept now defined, its relevance to Twilight must be completely apparent: it is a novel/series of books whose highest aspiration appears to be making its readers go SQUEE as often as humanly possible.

On a certain level, it's impossible to dispute its success. Just look at the books cultlike following-- Edward Cullen could easily give The Beatles a run for their money, squee-wise. I mean, just think about it-- he's this impossibly beautiful, super-humanly strong, witty, urbane, sophisticated, magically wealthy, excellently dressed, courtly, romantic, almost dangerous teenage vampire whose skin GLITTERS IN THE SUN. Capable of saving Bella from rapists, taking her out to an Italian restaurant, and having eyes only for her-- in a single night! When Bella faints, he picks her up in his arms, and all across America the post-feminist teen masses swoon. And yet, here in Boston-- or rather, down the Cape, where I actually started the book-- there was no swooning to be had. I didn't smolder, and my heart didn't throb. While I may have responded differently had I been a member of the book's core audience, i.e. a hormone-addled 15-year old who came of age in the era of the anti-Romantic naughts, the whole notion of this perfectly enthralling creature existing only to treasure Bella might have had a more profound appeal. But I don't think it would. Even at 15 I liked my romance with a healthy side of gender-bending ass kicking and sword fighting, as my adolescent obsession with Tamora Pierce indicates.

My biggest problem with the book, aside from its stomach-churningly retrograde gender politics, is that although Meyer knows how to name-check her "inspirations" (witness Bella reading both Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice for fun), she either doesn't get or is incapable or replicating the *real* key to the lasting appeal of such novels: the heroes of those books aren't simply flawless embodiments of male perfection, they are also well-matched with women of equal quality or passion. While I'm no big fan of either Heathcliff or Catherine Earnshaw, I can at least concede that they suit each other, and that the thrill of their relationship comes from the sense that they are equally matched in passion and fierceness, as well as beauty. As for Darcy and Elizabeth, while far more is said about him in this particular pop-culture moment, the book is (and has been) beloved by bright, articulate women everywhere as much for Elizabeth as for Darcy. She is neither so perfect that she is unrelatable, nor is she so devoid of spark or character that she's flat or dull. Even more critically, however, for my continued appreciation of the book, Elizabeth and Darcy both possess flaws, some which they must overcome to be together, and it is only through a process of mutual growth and change that their romance is possible.

Stephenie Meyer makes absolutely no attempt to turn Bella into Edward's equal in... anything. Bella's not particularly bright, she's not particularly pretty, she isn't spirited or funny, she has no defining interests or friends. Her only salient characteristics, as far as the book is concerned, are the intoxicating scent of her blood and her knack for falling down/getting nearly crushed by cars/attracting rapists. While the feminist in me appreciates this, a little, as the teenage girl's answer to the Unbelievably Hot Chick-Schlubby Guy pairings so popular in in movies and TV, neither trend does much for me. While it's good on some level to know that even if Seth Rogen can snag Katharine Hegel, Bella Swan can at least lock down Edward Cullen, I'd still rather see the kind of tension, spark, growth, and change engendered by the pairing of two characters of equal vigor. This kind of insipid escapist fantasy just makes me tired.